Walking into Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre on the opening night of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” felt like being 10 years old again. The bleachers of the gymnasium set to the side and the “Don’t do drugs” and “Boo is for bullying” signs brought back memories of kids shoving each other during P.E. and girls giggling at the latest boy band.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” written by Rachel Sheinkin and conceived by Rebecca Feldman, is about six middle-schoolers competing for first place in the county spelling bee to advance to nationals. From Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Tori Waner) who vies for the approval of her gay fathers and is pro-choice “despite being a virgin,” to Leaf Coneybear (Garrett Lamoureux) whose family constantly tells him he’s stupid, each student has a different reason to win the championship.
The play debuted on Broadway in 2005 and sold out with rave reviews from the majority of its critics. Cal Poly’s rendition did similarly well.
You wouldn’t normally expect a play entirely about a middle school spelling bee to be so good. However, in between the awkward pubescent moments, such as Chip Tolentino’s (Daniel Cook) “unfortunate erection,” were deeper themes of insecurity relatable even to those beyond middle school years.
Especially poignant was Olive Ostrovsky’s (Emily Kluger) performance toward the end of the play as she sang “The I Love You Song.” Her powerful vocals and sweet pigtails tugged at heartstrings as she yearned for her parents’ love.
The cast as a whole adopted their roles with ease. Among these was Jacob Keswick who played the charming know-it-all William Barfée, Lamoureux, as the adorably dopey Leaf Coneybear and Kluger as the sweet, unassuming Olive Ostrovsky. Kathryn Curran also did a phenomenal job as Rona Lisa Peretti, an ex-champion of the bee, from the second she walked on stage with her overenthusiastic gait and slicked back bun to her inconspicuous romance with the vice principal Douglas Panch.
Easily one of the highlights of the play was Douglas Panch’s (Jacob Corsaro) responses to “Can I have the word in a sentence please?” Each example sentence had the audience roaring louder than the last, like “Atheist: Because Suzie was an atheist, she was not bothered by other students chanting ‘Go to hell, Suzie!’”
The play was made even better by audience participation. At the beginning of the play, the audience was made to stand and recite the pledge of allegiance, while on stage the actors haphazardly mumbled the words the way children do when they’re forced to recite it daily. Some of the audience members were chosen before the performance to participate in the bee, but were given words like “cow” and “handsome,” much to the anger of the other competitors who had words
Overall, “The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee” was a raving success. From the set design and costumes to the musicals to the cast, this play is a must-see.